The port city of Vizagapatam on the Coromandel coast, with its large natural harbour, became one of the most important East India Company trading posts and as such its craftsmen had their pick of an array of prized materials such as teak, ebony, rosewood, padouk, ivory and sandalwood. From the late 17th century Vizagapatam was renowned for its craftsmen’s skill in creating furniture, often based on Western models, decorated with richly engraved ivory veneers and inlays. This luxurious cabinet typifies the designs that evolved there in the late 18th century for high status furniture encased entirely in ivory. This was an evolution from the earlier work produced where similar floral motifs (albeit often on a larger scale) and exclusively naturalistic designs were inlaid into contrasting timbers, but this had fallen from fashion by the time this elegant, essentially neoclassical, cabinet was conceived.
The form of this cabinet-on-stand is an interesting hybrid with the principal inspiration for the cabinet coming from the upper section of English bureau-bookcases of the first half of the 18th century; the outline of the base derived from table and chair designs of a similar date. The delicacy of the engraved decoration, centred on a magnificent pair of architectural panels used here, however, is firmly rooted in the high neoclassical fashion of the later 18th century. Engraved tablets with floral 'chintz' borders portray splendid architectural vistas, which would have struck a chord with wealthy patrons, harmonising with the taste for the formal but lighter Roman-style architecture which became popular in Britain during the reign of George III. Print sources were frequently drawn upon as inspiration for such engraved ivory work, as evidenced by the decoration drawn from engravings from Colen Campbell's Vitruvius Britannicus (published from 1715) which featured alongside views from the Haarlem publication, Her Zegepralent Kennemerlant, 1729, on a cabinet from the collection of J.W. Janssens, the last Dutch Governor of the Cape Colony (A. Jaffer, Luxury Goods from India, London, 2002, p. 80).
A closely related Vizagapatam cabinet of slightly earlier date, circa 1765, from the collection of The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, echoes the same basic form albeit with a transitional mix of engraved veneers and inlaid decoration. Interestingly it is engraved with depictions of Old Montagu House taken directly from a plate engraved by J. Green after watercolours by Samuel Wale (c. 1721-86) published in R. and J. Dodsley, London and Its Environs Described, 1761 (ibid., pp. 72-73, no. 29). In the case of the present cabinet, however, the buildings depicted are more likely slightly fantastical approximations of Western buildings and landscapes. The stylised palms engraved to the end panels can also be seen inlaid to an earlier Vizagapatam linen press of circa 1760, sold Christie’s, London, 9 December 2010, lot 40, whilst the design and form of the leg is particularly close to that used for a pair of Vizagapatam ivory veneered chair-back settees of circa 1770, purchased by King George III from the collection of Alexander Wynch (former governor of Madras), which remain in The Royal Collection (RCIN 489).
A closely related near pair of engraved ivory small bureaux-cabinets, almost certainly supplied to General Sir John Dalling, 1st Bt. (c. 1731-1798) whilst Commander-in-Chief in Madras circa 1786 was sold Christie's, London, 23 September 2005, lot 121 (£78,000).
The English émigré Joseph Barry (1796-1865) is recorded as a merchant and businessman in Cape Town as well as serving as an MP in The Parliament of the Cape of Good Hope. Barry was one of the founders of the town of Robertson in 1853, before being elected as the representative for Swellendam and moving to Cape Town, this cabinet would have been a fitting high status addition to the collection of this successful businessman and politician.
Prospective purchasers are advised that several countries prohibit the importation of property containing materials from endangered species, including but not limited to coral, ivory and tortoiseshell. Accordingly, prospective purchasers should familiarize themselves with relevant customs regulations prior to bidding if they intend to import this lot into another country.
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VIZAGAPATAM, CIRCA 1770-80
Imported to South Africa in the early 19th century by Joseph Barry (1796-1865) and by descent to his great-great-grandson, by whom sold, Strauss & Co, Johannesburg, 21 October 2013, lot 97.